It’s 6:15 pm. Orangey sunrays are swiftly turning deep red and making an exit below the horizon. Glittering night-lights oozing out of heritage buildings begin to wrestle with the fast approaching darkness. Not only are they potent enough to hold their own but at times seem overpowering. Neatly groomed Dong Quoi Street in the fashionable District 1 is busier than ever; folks who are returning home from a day’s work as well as those who come out to simply soak in the vibrant urban energy on a cool dry day like this. Dong Quai starts from the southern point of Saigon river and travels up north towards Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, where it comes to an end. Over the garden spaces near the church, local families and tourists alike are seen enjoying an evening picnic.
Tourists like me can’t stop marveling at the French colonial architecture in the city. Most notably, the Saigon Opera House, which has survived the urbanization wave for over a century and is still used to entertain theatregoers and music lovers today. A mere block away from the Opera, sits the grand old Hotel De Ville Saigon, presently known as Ho Chi Minh city hall, just as the city has changed its old name “Saigon” to “Ho Chi Minh City”. In front of this regal structure stands the statue of Ho chi minh, the country’s beloved national hero, and a child, depicting his intellect and compassion for the weakest member of society, while the flag of Vietnam, scarlet red pierced by a single bright yellow star in the middle, flies gallantly under the night sky. These historical edifices, including the newly refurbished Vincom center, the city’s largest luxury shopping mall, are painstakingly restored and elegantly illuminated, creating an epic romantic affair for nightly promenade seekers. Chic cafés, fancy restaurants, inviting art galleries and handicraft shops along Dong Quoi Street are sure to distract visitors from their leisurely stroll. There’s so much to see and so many beautiful things to buy on this street.
Velocity of a Vesper
To view vivacious nightlife in the vicinities, I venture out on a Vietnamese vesper. Arrrrm…that’s a lot of “v” in a sentence! Seriously though, I can’t think of a better way to explore than sitting at the back of a restored 60’s style vesper while my beloved Canon snaps away actions on the mean streets of Saigon. The Vesper Adventures, founded by an American expat, operates various tours in the city and the surroundings for both day and night. The driver picks me up from my hotel and takes me to Zoom café where meet & greet session with other participants over sunset drinks takes place. “Vietnamese like to go around town on their bikes aimlessly at night. It’s our favorite national pastime,” explains our guide, a young energetic girl with nerdy specs, all the while yakking up the storm with guests. I immediately give her a nickname Chatty Cathy.
Prowling through the massive crowds of motorbikes at first is petrifying but once I get used to the speed, it becomes exhilarating. Knowing I am not in control makes me want to lose it even further. Once the traffic turns green, a myriad of motorbikes and cars pop out from all directions. Fast and furious, lights flicker and heated engines roar in unison. It seems to me that together, these motorists form a mental network where they send and receive abstract signals to one another. They are wondrously in sync. They all seem to know where they are going, what measures to be taken and most importantly, respect each other’s space. Before my visit, I had been warned about the chaotic traffic. But in reality, it is far more civilized and controlled than any other South East Asian metropolises.
Savoring Street food
Nestled in the residential District 4, quite unlike the touristy District 1, this small seafood restaurant on the side of the main road is our first stop. Crabs, clams, snails and mussels are placed in trays right next to glass tanks that house live fishes and eels. Fat frogs sit in a tank submerged in shallow water, looking mean and certainly unhappy. A man hastily pulls out two frogs and takes them to the kitchen as we sit at the table. Soon we hear the sound of knife meeting a chopping board.
Our other guide, a 20-something Vietnamese fellow, tells us that the restaurant has prepared a menu with local favorites. First arrive the steamed crab legs. To eat them is simple; the Vietnamese way. Crack open the shells and rub their tender juicy flesh with a special seafood sauce, a mixture of grounded sea salt and crushed coarse pepper with a lime squeezed into the mix. Next is the clam soup cooked in ginger and fish broth. It has a very sharp spicy taste without having the presence of chili. The zesty kick must be coming from the galangal and ginger mix. Then it’s time for the second appetizer; grilled mussels, garnished with crumbled peanuts, chopped spring onions and cut red chili. The Vietnamese mussels, which come from the southern coast, are not too big but due to their freshness and the smokiness from the chargrill make it the most memorable dish of the night. Can even the best be thrilling enough? A waitress brings out our main course, a plate of wok-fried rice vermicelli and a dish of sizzling jumping chicken. The latter is a revelation. I rarely eat frog and this is the first time I’ve had it deep-fried. The cooking style is modest; after the deep-frying process, glaze them in the pan with a bit of sugar and fish sauce. However, there’s something in that divine fish sauce that can’t be explained with words. Fish sauce certainly is Vietnam’s answer to France’s butter.
More to munch
More food is coming my way. I am full yet not complaining. I had wished to immerse myself in Vietnamese cuisine. I am here to devour as much as my stomach allows. In District 3, a southern delicacy called Banh Xeo has been winning the hearts of locals and tourists alike for generations. It is a thin crepe-like dish with sprouts and shrimps toppings. Call it Vietnamese pancake, crepe, pizza or dosa. What makes this dish exceptional is the way you eat it. “First you tear a piece of crunchy Banh Xeo, then you wrap it up in lettuce leaf, add fresh herbs of your choice like mint or coriander, then dip it in fish sauce and eat”, instructs our guide. Vietnamese fish sauce dip is a combination of vinegar, sugar, water, lime juice with bird’s eye chilis and finely chopped garlic floating in it. Those who prefer sweeter taste dip theirs in peanut sauce instead, which comes accompanying the world famous, crispy deep-fried spring rolls.
Vietnamese cuisine in general is a balanced diet. The principal of yin and yang is applied in the cooking style. There’s always something green, raw and organic element escorting anything that is cooked. I am hugely inspired by the minimal use of oil and reliance on fresh herbs and natural distinctive flavors of ingredients. This philosophy is reflected in Goi Cuon(salad rolls). Pork, prawn, vegetables, rice vermicelli and fresh herbs such as mint or coriander are wrapped in rice paper (banh trang). When our Chatty Cathy starts demonstrating how to prepare grilling thinly sliced marinated beef, I am at this point where I must abandon my deliciously chilled Saigon beer in order to make room. With that I also realize that at Vietnamese restaurants, one can’t complain much about the service because, from picking out ingredients, preparing dishes to choosing the sauce, you do things all on your own and it’s all up to you.
I would not have been able to find this café on my own if it weren’t part of the vesper tour. Our guide leads us through a dark and dingy passage to an old seedy building. He gives us yet another warning to be quiet when we enter. We follow him doubtfully up the dark wiggly stairways like a bunch of obedient kindergarteners. Café Vung is definitely not your typical coffee joint. Lit only by candles and tiny Christmas tree lights, it feels more like someone’s living room. Low chairs, small stools and tables are cramped in a very tiny area divided by a wall with two entrances on each side. A pretty round-faced girl, her frame may be petite but certainly not her vocals, is performing a sweeping Vietnamese ballad to a packed house. Love is in the air. Romantic atmosphere clearly attracts lovers who make up more than half of the room. Some patrons are leaning back; sitting comfortably and enjoying the live music while others are quietly going on with their smart phones, possibly ‘checking-in’.
2-piece band, consisting a pianist and violinist only, plays mostly melancholy Vietnamese music but every now and then, would break out into shortened version of songs like “Casablanca” or “Moon River”. I order my now staple, iced-Vietnamese coffee. Unlike in the west, we in Asia like our coffee or tea milky and sweet. I personally treat it as a dessert, a commemoration of a successful completion of a meal. Malaysia’s white coffee, Singapore’s Teh Tarik , Myanmar’s Lat-phat-yay and Hong Kong’s milk tea follow more or less the same formula and the secret ingredient? The delightful condensed milk! This hidden cafe is definitely an experience to remember. Not only for its exquisite live music performed without microphone and amplifier but also for a chance to glance at a locals’ favorite chill-out hub.
“Emotion talks” says the logo of this live music joint, simply named, “Acoustic”, the last sojourn of the night. What a perfect way to end a night that has already been filled with thrills. “Acoustic” is located at the very end of a small alley, which also houses several other restaurants and live music pubs. An old Volkswagen, lit inside and rested against a wall, sets a Rock & Roll mood. The small venue is jam-packed tonight with mostly Saigonites who sit in rows listening to a cover band on stage play 4 Non Blondes’s iconic rock anthem “What’s up” as though they were watching a Puccini. Another band takes over after that song and the atmosphere gets steamier. Santana’s “Maria, Maria” blows ultra sexy vibe into the room. If this was in some South American country, I could see people grinding up on each other dancing wildly. How can you resist such invigorating music? I don’t know about others but I am swaying along holding my G&T. What a night! But I don’t want to call it a night just yet.